Do you ever sit in your doctor's waiting room, impatiently sighing and checking your watch? Cinemax's new drama might just give you an attitude adjustment.
Set in New York in 1900, The Knicktakes a bloody, unflinching look at the birth of modern medicine. Created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and elevated by the slick direction of (not-so-retired) Steven Soderbergh, the medical drama stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, a brilliant surgeon at The Knickerbocker Hospital who spends his days shooting up liquid cocaine and his nights sleeping in an opium den. That's probably because, despite Thackery's gifts, most of his patients die on his operating table as he and his fellow doctors experiment with what today are basic surgical procedures. (And all without wearing gloves!)
But the show has more on its mind than creating a whole new batch of hypochondriacs. Here are eight reasons why you should give The Knicka shot:1. Clive Owen (and his mustache) are excellent. Even though John Thackery is inspired by a real person (Dr. William Halstead, who co-founded Johns Hopkins, was also a cocaine and morphine addict), Owen's character is cut from the exact same cloth as many recent TV antiheroes. But Owen adds enough wit to his cocky swagger to make the performance entertaining. Plus: At the end of the day, he's trying to save lives. "I think that we want people like Thackery — people who were single-minded and driven and undeterred are the people who discover the things that change our world," Amiel says. "If this guy discovers 20 procedures over his lifetime that save millions of lives, we're willing to take the brusque, self-destructive, slightly bigoted, sexist character, because he's getting done what we as a society desperately need. ... You don't want to be friends with Thackery, but you're grateful for him."2. Cocaine was friggin' awesome. While we probably wouldn't want our surgeons cutting into us while high today, in 1900, the stigma of addiction didn't really exist. "Nobody really understood addiction," Begler says. "Thackery has this large body count behind him, and that's going to just crush you after a while. [Since] Thackery's such a driven guy, the only way for him to push through all of that is to have liquid courage [and] to have this thing that's going to keep him focused and motivated. It was like his Red Bull." In fact, it was regularly used on patients! "Coca-Cola, until 1903, had a fair amount of cocaine in it," Amiel says. "Nothing's more American than Coca-Cola. There was no stigma attached to cocaine because it was used as a medical drug. Originally, it was seen as taking an aspirin. ... They thought they'd found the road to the greatest drug in the history of mankind."3. It's a period drama that's not about "the good ol' days." Drug use isn't the only thing shocking about The Knick's portrayal of the past. In addition to sparse surgical conditions, electricity was also a relatively new luxury. As such, New York was literally a dark and dangerous place. "I think we can see the past in romantic sepia tones, and we call them the good old days and a simpler time," Amiel says. "What we realize is it was a much more complicated time. This was a much harder city to navigate than the one that currently exists. Everyone was on the take. No one was regulating anything." Fall Preview: Get scoop on your favorite returning showsExpect to see some crooked characters, including hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who is in deep with a loan shark, and ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), who squeezes extra money out of Barrow by bringing him extra bodies. "One of the things that we really wanted to strive for was to connect you to the immediacy of the times, what the struggles were, but also the idea that the characters are universal," Amiel says. "Someone who's egomaniacal is egomaniacal in 1800 or 1900, or 2014, and we wanted to make sure that you couldn't separate yourself from the show by saying, 'Oh, look at this rich, beautiful period piece.'"
4. Steven Soderbergh. After reading the pilot script, Soderbergh spearheaded the entire project. He recruited Owen, got Cinemax to make the show and chose to direct all 10 episodes like one long movie. (He's already agreed to direct all 10 episodes of the show's already ordered second season as well.) Soderbergh's unique visual sensibility is all over the show and enhances the experience. "[What] really makes it visceral is that Steven's camera is handheld," Amiel says. "You just fell like you're another person in the room."
5. Cliff Martinez. Soderbergh also recruited frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Drive) to do the music, an addictive, synth-heavy, modern score that somehow feels perfect for the show. "In so many words [Soderbergh] told me: 'We're all going to recreate early 1900s New York as authentically as possible... except for you," Martinez said. "I want the music to be modern and electronic." Check out a track from the score below.
6. It revitalizes a tired TV genre. Medical dramas are second only to cop shows as the bedrock of television. But this isn't just ER: 1900. "We wanted to show a medical show that was a lot more raw than what you see," Begler says. "A lot of patients die on our show. We didn't want to romanticize any of it. We wanted to tell the truth of what was going on." And in a world where fevers can kill you and STDs can make you lose your nose, the cases of the week are both enthralling and educational. "You have medical shows where people are getting CAT scans, and they're using defibrillators, and they're being intubated, and they're being given antibiotics and blood transfusion as a matter of course in the background," Amiel says. "[Our characters] were inventing all those things back then. We're solving them as basic medical problems. We're not trying to do some tricky, incredible surgery that does something that no one's ever seen before in 2014. We're trying to do a simple procedure that people were just dying of routinely because no one knew how to do it."
7. The show is concerned with issues race and class. Another part of painting a realistic (if un-pretty) picture of turn-of-the-century New York is dealing with the cultural and socioeconomic divides. The Knickerbocker treats mostly poor, immigrant patients who become unwitting test dummies because they can't afford anything else. But Thackery & Co. must also reassess when the hospital's chief benefactor insists that Thackery hire a black man, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), to be his deputy chief of surgery. "It's an incredibly volatile time to be black in America and even in a city like New York," Begler says. "African-American doctors were not working in any of these established hospitals. The best that some of them could do was work in what were called negro infirmaries, even though some of these guys were Harvard-trained. ... What I love about [Algernon] is that he's sort of between two worlds. He's obviously not accepted by the white community in the way he's treated at the hospital, but he also is not really accepted in the black community. He's seen as snobby and uppity, and he struggles so much. It's just such a hard existence for him."
8. It's a big swing for Cinemax. Although HBO's sister network has found success and loyal audiences for such shows as Strike Back and Banshee, those pulpy dramas still play into Cinemax's history as a home for late-night softcore. In both content and auspices, The Knickis clearly striving for prestige. "[At Cinemax,] we felt like we would just have more room and more freedom to see the vision through," Begler says. "They were incredibly collaborative, but I feel like they were really respectful to what we were trying to accomplish. They gave us so much room and so much freedom to play." Adds Amiel: "Every time we turn around, there's another channel that we had dismissed that we're all running to and saying, 'Wait a second, there's a great show there!' AMC was the place that you saw old movies, and suddenly you had Mad Menand Breaking Bad, and everybody had to run to that channel. If we can have people signing up for Cinemax because [they] want to see The Knick and it brings more eyeballs to every other show there... we'll be thrilled to create another place where people are going to see television."
The Knickpremieres Friday at 10/9c on Cinemax. For more reasons to watch, check out our Watch This Tonight video below: